When I embarked on ministerial training at age 18 and began delving into theology and church history, a whole new landscape of knowledge opened up before me. I was reared by my local church and my parents, in particular my mother, on a basic proof text Bible study approach, but by my second year of ministerial training, I was exposed to the nuances of scripture that come with exploring context, background, language, etc. Bible reading was no longer an exercise in applying to each verse of scripture the default interpretation that had been handed down to me by the elders. Suddenly, the Bible became a living, organic, technicolor drama of how God is addressing the sin problem.
In college, church history was also a relatively new field of study for me. I had been taught bits of Adventist history as a Pathfinder, but the vast expanse of church history that I was now being exposed to gave me a greater appreciation of the reason the Seventh-day Adventist Church came into being, and also provided an expanded understanding of the paths trod by other denominations. I was like an open-mouthed seven- year-old walking through the aisles of Toys “R” Us for the first time and seeing all the fun things that other children have but which I never even knew existed! Justin Martyr’s “Apology,” Irenaeus’ anti-heresy writings, the ‘conversion’ of Constantine, the conversion of Augustine, the consecration of the Bishop of Rome by Leo the Great, among other events, opened up the young mind of this eager student to the vastness of knowledge about the Christian church that was out there to be explored and absorbed.
My stroll through the church history aisles soon changed from a journey of wonderment to one of shock and consternation. It was as if I was peacefully admiring the beautiful animals in a safari park when I was suddenly attacked by an alligator, but somehow managed to stay alive. Coming across the magnitude of the persecution by the church of so-called heretics and dissidents during the Middle Ages took me by surprise and ‘dis-oriented’ me for a while. How could God allow such slaughter of the innocent, of people who were merely seeking to live in harmony with their conscience? An estimate of the number killed by the church during the Middle Ages is upward of 50 million. “From the birth of Popery in 606 to the present time, it is estimated by careful and credible historians, that more than fifty million of the human family, have been slaughtered for the crime of heresy . . . . ”[i] Adam Clarke’s Martyrology states that the number of Waldensians slaughtered by the church during the first part of the 13th century in France was approximately 2 million. The Waldensians were nearly erased from the face of the earth, along with their historical records.[ii]
Let’s consider a couple of those who were killed by the church for their beliefs. John Huss, a Czech priest, spoke against the church’s teaching on Ecclesiology (nature and structure of the church) and the Eucharist (Lord’s Supper). Huss argued that the church was the Body of Christ, that Christ was its only head, and that the Pope, through ignorance, could make mistakes. He also spoke against many practices that he felt ran counter to scripture. On July 6, 1415, he was burnt at the stake for honoring the dictates of conscience and the way in which he believed that God was leading him. We will not soon forget his prayer as the flames rose to consume him: “Lord Jesus, it is for thee that I patiently endure this cruel death. I pray thee to have mercy on my enemies.”
Then, there was William Tyndale, an Englishman who was deeply affected by the teachings of John Wycliffe. While studying at Oxford he dreamed of making the Bible available to the ordinary people. Up to that point, it was the policy of the church that the Bible should be read and interpreted only by a priest. The ordinary people were obliged to accept a priest’s interpretation. Tyndale had to escape to Continental Europe in order to pursue his dream, which was fulfilled in 1525/26 when he published the New Testament in English. That made him a hunted man by the leaders of the church and influential church members. Cardinal Wosley and Thomas Moore made it their duty to find this ‘arch heretic’ and punish him for the sin of having the audacity to translate the Bible into English, which was against church policy. He was eventually found in Brussels and subsequently burnt at the stake, but only after he had given to England and the world the New Testament and parts of the Old in English.
Most Christians whom I know today are on the side of the “heretics,” not the church establishment. It doesn’t take much to do that, as it is clear that people like Wycliffe, Jerome, Huss, Tyndale, Luther and tens of millions were courageous people who determined not to embrace the excesses and false teachings of the church and endeavored to be responsive to the leading of God in their lives.
The leaders of the church and their accomplices in political offices were not known as evil people. In fact, many were known for their deep faith. Thomas Moore, for example, was a man who was known for his piety. His book, Utopia, is universally known, but his work, “The Sadness of Christ,” is still considered one of the great devotional classics. His personal faith led him to persecute Tyndale, but that same faith led him not to accept King Henry VIII as the Supreme Head of the Church in England, for which he was executed in 1535.
The actions taken by the leaders of the church in the Middle Ages were intended to protect the church and its unity. Their view of unity was an organization whose adherents thought, spoke and believed in unison. To disagree with the teachings of the church, many of which were formulated at the great Councils of the church, was to endanger one’s life, which most likely would lead to one’s death. Church leaders were prepared to have unity at any cost, even it that involved slaughtering millions.
Unity is often not a neat and orderly state of affairs, in which all members of a group think and behave uniformly. One does not need to look beyond the New Testament to see this reality. The leadership of the early church in Jerusalem, understanding the imperative of mission and the need for the gospel to take root in different parts of the world, gave its blessing to unity in diversity. That in itself was a formula for different approaches for different segments of people in the church on matters that were not core beliefs, but which was essential for growth and a sense of belonging on the part of members from different locations and traditions.
As early as Acts Chapter 6, we see differences in administering the affairs of the church for different kinds of people. Here we see two distinct groups in the church with separate needs:
"Now in those days, when the number of the disciples was multiplying, there arose a complaint against the Hebrews by the Hellenists, because their widows were neglected in the daily distribution. Then the twelve summoned the multitude of the disciples and said, “It is not desirable that we should leave the word of God and serve tables. Therefore, brethren, seek out from among you seven men of good reputation, full of the Holy Spirit and wisdom, whom we may appoint over this business; but we will give ourselves continually to prayer and to the ministry of the word.” (Acts 6:1-4).
Both the Hellenists (most likely Jews who had adopted the Greek language and culture) and the Hebrews are called disciples, which shows commitment to Jesus on the part of both groups. The Hellenists complained against the Hebrews for neglecting their widows in the daily distribution of supplies. The leaders of the church (the Twelve) took the complaint of the Hellenists seriously and acted to resolve the matter by appointing seven deacons to minister to the needs of the Hellenist widows. The church demonstrated great wisdom, not only in appointing the seven deacons but also in ensuring that all seven were Hellenists, as their names suggest.
It appears that initially the seven deacons had the specific role of serving the Hellenist members while the Twelve continued to have responsibility for both the Hebrews and Hellenists in spiritual matters. Such an arrangement today could possibly have some asking, “Why should the Hellenists have this extra level of support when it is not available to the Hebrews?” As the church grew, it became evident that special provisions had to be made for certain local needs. Unity was maintained not primarily by a uniformed structure but by the relationship that members had with Christ. Both Hellenists and Hebrews were His disciples.
We find another fine example of unity in diversity in Acts 15. Leaders from Judea went down to Antioch, where Paul and Barnabas were engaged in ministry. Ignoring the work of Paul and Barnabas, these men urged circumcision on the new converts. Paul and Barnabas argued aggressively with these men to leave the new converts alone, but the men stood their ground and in the end it was decided that Paul, Barnabas, the men and a few others should travel to Jerusalem to discuss the matter with church leadership. After much discussion, the leaders in Jerusalem issued their decision:
"It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us not to burden you with anything beyond the following requirements: You are to abstain from food sacrificed to idols, from blood, from the meat of strangled animals and from sexual immorality. You will do well to avoid these things.” (Acts 15:28, 29).
The upshot of the decision of the leaders was that Gentile converts in Antioch and elsewhere were not under obligation to be circumcised, even though the practice would remain among Jewish Christians. This was a decision that led to an uneven situation in the church but which served to preserve its unity. Unity, clearly, was not uniformity in practice or policy, but in the fact that both Gentiles and Jews were committed disciples of Jesus.
[i] “History of Romanism,” pp. 541, 542. New York, 1871.
[ii] Thomas Armitage, A History of the Baptists, "Post-Apostolic Times - The Waldensians," 1890